From one year to the next, a lot can change in an NHL organization, and that was especially true for this year’s Montreal Canadiens. They have replaced their general manager and shifted to more of a rebuild under the new regime since the last time we conducted the Top 25 Under 25.
That has meant shipping out veteran players to bring in more prospects and add draft picks. The Habs just went into a home draft with 14 picks, making 11 selections and also adding an NHL player who they hope can become a top-six centre.
This project isn’t only about additions, however. The nature of putting an age cap on eligibility sees some players still in the organization graduate from the list, entering their primes. Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher are two such players from the past, while Jonathan Drouin and Jake Evans are more recent examples of players still with room to improve more than seven years removed from their drafts.
Not many players were in their final year of eligibility last summer, so there wasn’t a large group set to exit the rankings this time. In the end, we have just one player who remains in the organization after turning 25 in the past 12 months.
Leskinen wasn’t under contract with the Canadiens last year. They had sent him a qualifying offer following the 2020-21 season he played in the AHL, retaining his rights as he went to play in the KHL. When he turned 25 in February, he had been at home for several weeks following Jokerit’s exit from the league in light of the invasion of Ukraine. In March, he joined Tappara of Finland’s Liiga, playing out the season and participating in 15 post-season games, recording 10 points.
He had been an important player in two seasons in Laval with a combined 39 points in 85 games, and was a steadying presence on the blue line for a Rocket team that ranked as the AHL’s best right up to the end of the 2020-21 season. Now that the KHL isn’t a viable option for him, he has signed a new contract with the Canadiens and will play in the organization this year.
He already has some NHL experience, seeing six games of action over his two years in North America. With the ability to play either side, he will probably see a few games with the Canadiens again.
Several players joined the organization after we voted for the 2021 list and have since turned 25, never getting considered for the project.
Samuel Montembeault turned 25 a few weeks after getting claimed off waivers from the Florida Panthers ahead of the 2021-22 season. He started 30 games for Montreal last year as Price missed most of the season and Jake Allen dealt with a few injuries of his own, and that performance was enough to earn Montembeault a two-year extension.
Montreal also put in a waiver claim for Rem Pitlick when the Minnesota Wild tried to send him to their AHL affiliate. Coming to his new team with 11 points through 20 games with the Wild, Pitlick added another 26 points in 46 games with the Canadiens. Despite being a pending restricted free agent at the end of the season, Montreal elected not to tender him a qualifying offer, leaving him to become an unrestricted free agent. Able to sign with any team, he nevertheless signed a new contract with Montreal on July 16.
He’s not eligible for the Top 25 because he turned 25 on April 2. However, looking at a small number of the ballots, it seems his brother, Rhett, who is also in the organization, was mistaken for him. Rhett will be a sophomore with the University of Minnesota this season.
Filling out the depth for the Laval Rocket in free agency, Kent Hughes also signed Anthony Richards and Mitchell Stephens, who had turned 25 on December 20 and February 5, respectively.
There were several players who exited the organization who had been featured in the countdown last season, leaving under various circumstances. Technically, Jesperi Kotkaniemi could be included in this list because he was on the ballot last summer, but he was removed from the countdown when it was announced that Montreal wouldn’t match the offer sheet he signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Everyone behind him (he had come in at number three after the voting) was moved up a spot after the reveal of the order had already begun, and he did not officially slot into the rankings in 2021.
|Alexander Romanov||3||4||9||26||-||-||-||Traded to NYI|
|Ryan Poehling||6||9||4||7||14||-||-||Traded to PIT|
|Michael McNiven||20||22||18||18||13||29||-||Traded to CGY|
|Jacob Olofsson||25||25||19||21||-||-||-||Signing rights expired|
|Arsen Khisamutdinov||37||33||35||-||-||-||-||Contract termination|
The highest ranked among the departed players was Alexander Romanov, rising to a tenure-high third last season when he was bumped up to Kotkaniemi’s spot from fourth. It was a rapid rise for Romanov after he was drafted in the second round in 2018 and no one knew anything about him. His performance at the World Junior Hockey Championship a few months later that ended with him taking home the award for top defenceman seemed to be proof that the scouting team had good info when they made the selection.
After two seasons in the KHL, all the while indicating that his goal was to play in the NHL, he joined the Canadiens for the 2020-21 season, playing 54 games in his rookie campaign, then only dressing for four playoff games in Montreal’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. Last year he played 79 games for the Canadiens, recording 13 points, and many more thunderous hits.
He would have been a regular on the blue line again this year, but there are options coming through the system that will be challenging for spots. The left side of the defence was one of the strongest areas in the organization, and Hughes felt he could trade from that position of strength.
The move was made at the draft when Hughes pulled off two moves in one, first sending Romanov and a third-round pick to the New York Islanders for the 13th overall selection, then packaging that pick with 66th overall to acquire Kirby Dach.
Romanov had two more years of eligibility in this project after this one, and more time to build upon the confidence he was gaining through 2021-22. Now that development will continue on Long Island, where he could form a pairing with fellow 2018 classmate Noah Dobson in the future.
Unlike Romanov, we had a solid understanding of the player Ryan Poehling would become when he was selected in the first round the previous year. He was a high-floor player, one destined to play in the bottom six of the NHL team, but didn’t really have the profile of a player who could develop the offence to move further up the lineup.
To Poehling’s credit, he challenged those assertions at various points in his career. In the same WJC where Romanov claimed top defenceman honours, Poehling was named tournament MVP after some clutch scoring to help Team USA take the silver medal. His collegiate career ended just in time for him to end that 2018-19 season with one game in the NHL, and his debut performance of a hat trick and a goal in the shootout to win the game over the Toronto Maple Leafs will forever be a part of franchise lore.
With those standout moments in mind, Poehling jumped to fourth in the 2019 countdown. But that was as high as he ever rose as his play at the professional level in subsequent years was more indicative of the third-line role that had previously been cited as his ceiling.
The emergence of Jake Evans over the last couple of seasons as a player who could play that same role, combined with the draft-day trade for Dach, made Poehling expendable. He was included in a package with Jeff Petry that Hughes offered to the Pittsburgh Penguins to acquire defenceman Mike Matheson and a 2023 draft pick.
The next pick Montreal made in the 2017 NHL Draft was Josh Brook, the first player in a run on Western Hockey League defencemen that year. It was Brook’s offensive play that earned him such an early selection at 56th, and what helped him make a debut at 24th in his first year in this series.
He had jumped up to 11th two seasons later on the strength of that offence, but defensive issues were exposed at the AHL level, making it clear he had a lot of work to do in that area. He dealt with a knee injury that limited him to just six games with Laval last season, and he was assigned to the ECHL’s Lions de Trois-Rivières to help him get up to speed. Expected to dominate at the third tier, he only had one point in six regular-season games. While he did up that to six points in seven post-season contests, it wasn’t enough to keep the new regime interested. He was left unqualified after the season to become an unrestricted free agent. He has since signed with the Calgary Flames’ new AHL affiliate, the Calgary Wranglers.
Michael McNiven was signed as a free agent in 2015 after impressing in that year’s development camp as an invitee. Voters recognized some talent when it came time to rank the players the next year, but in 2016-17 the undrafted goaltender forced everyone to take notice of his play.
Cut from Canada’s National Junior Team that winter, he channeled his disappointment into determination when he returned to the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack. He ended the season with a 41-9-4 record, six shutouts, and a .915 save percentage. He was named both the OHL goaltender of the year and the Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the year as a result.
He gradually improved throughout his time in the AHL, despite the occasional demotion to the ECHL as the Canadiens gave priority to Cayden Primeau, their own drafted prospect. McNiven made no bones about his displeasure with that situation, believing he deserved the same shot, and at points during his time in the organization his play made that case for him.
Two seasons ago, however, when the AHL team was challenging for the league’s top spot, McNiven posted his first sub-.900 season, and those numbers only got worse last year. He finally got his chance to play in an NHL game in 2021-22 when he came in to play the third period versus Minnesota in a blowout. That debut performance was three goals against on seven shots.
McNiven would have joined Leskinen as a graduate this year, but on March 2, the netminder was traded to the Flames for future considerations, and Calgary subsequently traded him to the Ottawa Senators. He finished his season playing two games for the Belleville Senators, posting a .878 save percentage, his final game a 5-1 loss to Laval. He currently has no contract for the 2022-23 season.
Jacob Olofsson was taken in the same round as Romanov (and Jesse Ylönen) in what was an 11-player 2018 NHL Draft class. There was some initial hope for his NHL chances, but his offensive game never came around in his time in Sweden. Various coaches in various leagues tried shifting him between centre and wing, but none of their tactics tapped any latent offensive ability.
Olofsson’s time in the Canadiens’ system ended with him clinging to the final spot in the official Top 25 for two years, but the team opted not to sign him before their rights expired on June 1, 2022.
Arsen Khisamutdinov was the only player in this category to never crack the Top 25. The scouting staff thought that perhaps he could use his size to become an effective pro in North America, and used a sixth-round pick in 2019 to select a player they felt may be coveted by several teams as a free agent. He played 15 games for Laval in 2020-21 and had one point. After playing 10 games for the new ECHL affiliate last season and contributing five points, he and the Canadiens agreed to a mutual contract termination, allowing him to return overseas.
|Arber Xhekaj||2001-01-30||21.5||LD||Signed as FA|
|Emil Heineman||2001-11-16||20.7||LW||Traded from CGY|
|Ty Smilanic||2002-01-20||20.6||LW||Traded from FLA|
|Justin Barron||2001-11-15||20.7||RD||Traded from COL|
|Nate Schnarr||1999-02-25||23.5||C||Traded from NJD|
|Lucas Condotta||1997-11-06||24.8||LW||Signed as FA|
|Juraj Slafkovský||2004-03-20||18.4||LW||2022 NHL Draft (#1)|
|Kirby Dach||2001-01-21||21.6||C||Traded from CHI|
|Filip Mesar||2004-01-03||18.6||RW||2022 NHL Draft (#26)|
|Owen Beck||2004-02-03||18.5||C||2022 NHL Draft (#33)|
|Lane Hutson||2004-02-14||18.5||LD||2022 NHL Draft (#62)|
|Vinzenz Rohrer||2004-09-09||17.9||C||2022 NHL Draft (#75)|
|Adam Engström||2003-11-17||18.7||LD||2022 NHL Draft (#92)|
|Cedrick Guindon||2004-04-21||18.3||LW||2022 NHL Draft (#127)|
|Jared Davidson||2002-07-07||20.1||C||2022 NHL Draft (#130)|
|Emmett Croteau||2003-12-07||18.7||G||2022 NHL Draft (#162)|
|Petteri Nurmi||2002-01-12||20.6||LD||2022 NHL Draft (#194)|
|Miguël Tourigny||2002-02-09||20.5||RD||2022 NHL Draft (#216)|
The first addition to the under-25 pool was made just before the 2021-22 season began when Marc Bergevin signed development camp invitee Arber Xhekaj to an entry-level contract. The big, mean defenceman has completed his Junior career and is expected to play in Laval this season.
A significant portion of the new arrivals are players brought into the fold in Hughes’s trade deadline deals, beginning with an early one on Valentine’s Day that sent Tyler Toffoli to Calgary. In that trade, they acquired 30-year-old forward Tyler Pitlick, prospect Emil Heineman, and a first-round pick that was used to select Filip Mešár.
Hughes made another move days before the deadline when he shipped Ben Chiarot to the division rival Panthers. Florida’s package was a coveted 2023 first-rounder — with no lottery protection — and NCAA prospect Ty Smilanic.
After repeatedly saying he wouldn’t trade Artturi Lehkonen just for the sake of making a deadline deal, the new GM got an offer from the Colorado Avalanche that he liked, a familiar pick-and-a-prospect deal that included defenceman Justin Barron and a second-round pick in 2024.
Before deadline day came to an end, Hughes also flipped goaltender Andrew Hammond to the New Jersey Devils for AHL forward Nate Schnarr.
The final acquisition made before the 2022 NHL Draft was the signing of Lucas Condotta, a player who had just finished his career at UMass-Lowell and played seven regular-season games with Laval and 10 more in the AHL playoffs.
Montreal went into the draft with the first pick in all seven rounds and held seven more selections besides. They made the somewhat surprising decision to take Juraj Slafkovský first overall over the favoured Shane Wright, then pulled off a significant trade a dozen picks later to land Dach. The club ended the first day of proceedings by selecting Mešár to make it two Slovak prospects taken in the first round.
Hughes and his scouting staff kicked things off on day two by selecting centreman Owen Beck, and the selections came quickly over the final six rounds as teams were reluctant to part with 2023 picks, leaving teams to just select prospects rather than working trades. When the dust settled a few hours later, Montreal had nine new prospects to go with the two first-rounders, and the overall theme appeared to be drafting intelligent players who had a good grasp of the game.
The haul of picks included six forwards, four defenceman, and the customary goaltender that has now become the trend every year since 2019, a tradition Hughes was happy to carry on from the Bergevin tenure.
The net result of all the moves is seven players departing the project and 18 arriving, for an increase of 11 — from 41 to 52 — in the organization’s count of players under the age of 25.
Figuring out where to slot these 18 new additions made this a challenging exercise this year. The pool was already fairly deep after a few large draft classes, and 2022’s was one of the strongest we’ve ever had in terms of the positions at which players were selected.
With all the recent draft picks, we could have done a Top 25 Under 21 this year, as 28 players meet the criterion. It’s a young pool and a lot of these players could be around for many years. There’s a lot of quality to go with the quantity, and there will be players ranked outside of the Top 25 who would have been well within it a few years ago.
Montreal currently holds another 11 picks for the 2023 NHL Draft, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they’ll be trading those picks for anything other than a young impact player, so we’re in for another entertaining/aggravating vote at this time a year from now in either case.
Tomorrow we begin the countdown by looking at the players who were ranked the lowest of the 52. There were some substantial drops this year as some prospects with potential were usurped by those with more projectable skill sets. There could always be a player or two in this group who surprise us with a big move up the list over the next several years.
Follow along and share your own rankings as the players are revealed, making your arguments for why they deserved to be higher or lower, or right where they end up. If you would like to have your list sent, please make your request in the series’ introduction article.